The Link Between Trauma and Addiction

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The Link Between Trauma and Addiction

“Trauma is personal. It does not disappear if it is not validated. When it is ignored or invalidated the silent screams continue internally heard only by the one held captive. When someone enters the pain and hears the screams healing can begin.” -Danielle Bernock

Trauma and addiction often co-exist. When trauma occurs, it can immensely affect the way a person reacts to certain situations. In addition, some of the emotions that result from trauma can be difficult to deal with. Unfortunately, many people who endure a traumatic experience turn to drugs or alcohol to cope.

The deadly pattern of coping with trauma through substance abuse can rapidly turn into an addiction. Substance abuse is an extremely unhealthy way to cope with trauma. It often exacerbates lingering symptoms of trauma responses or PTSD.


Trauma refers to the effects of a threatening or scary situation upon a person’s mind. When someone fears for his or her safety, witnesses a violent or tragic event, or feels intense emotional or physical pain, that person may have experienced trauma. Sometimes, trauma can cause post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) to develop.

Adults are far more equipped to handle trauma than children are. As a result, children who experience trauma are far more likely to experience negative effects from the event. Similarly, a person who endures trauma on an ongoing basis is more likely to be affected by it compared to someone who experiences a singular traumatic event.

Many people think of trauma as extremely harmful events such as sexual abuse, near-death experiences, or abuse. However, these are all on the greater, more intense side of the spectrum. Trauma can be anything that makes a person feel as though his or her wellbeing, emotional security, or physical security is at risk or under attack.

Some examples of trauma include:

  • Rape
  • Sexual assault
  • Physical abuse
  • Emotional abuse
  • Serious injury
  • Death of a loved one
  • Domestic violence
  • Community violence
  • Natural disasters (hurricanes, tornadoes, flooding, earthquakes, etc.)
  • Car accident
  • Serious illness
  • Bullying

How Trauma Fuels Addiction

When trauma is left untreated, individuals may turn to drugs or alcohol to come with their unresolved issues. In the short term, drugs and alcohol may help a person reduce their symptoms associated with trauma and numb out the lingering effects of his or her experience. Unpleasant symptoms that a person with trauma may attempt to reduce include:

  • Hypersensitivity
  • Agitation
  • Depression
  • Social withdrawal
  • Insomnia

Prolonged substance abuse, however, usually ends up becoming another unmanageable problem in people’s lives. After some time, the substances which once “cured” a person’s symptoms begin to cause more problems, pain, and suffering.

Early traumatic experiences make individuals extremely vulnerable to addiction. In surveys of adolescents who were obtaining treatment for substance use disorders, more than 70% of patients reported having a history of trauma. Additionally, up to 59% of young adults with PTSD develop a substance use disorder.

Trauma-Informed Care

When a person decides to get sober, it is imperative that he or she not only receives treatment for a substance abuse problem but for trauma as well. If trauma is left unresolved, a person may return to unhealthy coping mechanisms and become enveloped in a vicious cycle of relapse and self-medication. Fortunately, trauma-informed care utilizes behavioral therapy to help individuals heal from trauma and learn healthy coping skills.

The first step of trauma-informed care is for the therapist and patient to understand where the patient’s trauma stemmed from. Then, they’ll have to understand how it has affected this person’s life. In order for trauma-informed care to be effective, there must be a high level of trust between therapist and patient. After all, discussing trauma can be a terrifying and uncomfortable experience.

The CDC outlines the 6 guiding principles to a trauma-informed approach as being:

  • Safety
  • Trustworthiness and transparency
  • Peer support
  • Collaboration and mutuality
  • Empowerment and choice
  • Cultural, historical, and gender issues

In gaining trust, being honest, and changing behaviors, a person can begin to heal from trauma. This will prepare him or her for success in sobriety. This type of therapy helps patients work through their trauma, identify their emotions, gain emotional support from others, and teach them how to cope in healthy ways and take back control over their own lives.

EMDR For Trauma Therapy and Addiction Treatment

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a highly effective method of treating individuals who have experienced trauma. It is a form of psychotherapy that is designed to reduce the distress that is associated with trauma. During EMDR, a therapist targets a specific memory of the patient and asks the patient to hold this memory in their thoughts. While keeping this memory in mind, the patient’s eyes will track the movement of a therapist’s hand.

EMDR therapy is typically held over the course of eight sessions. Throughout the sessions, different events and memories will be addressed as well as current situations that cause distress. In addition, patients are taught how to develop healthy skills and coping mechanisms to deal with future events or emotional triggers.

One report found that 70% of studies done on EMDR suggest that this type of therapy is more effective and rapid than trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy. The studies reported that EMDR helps decrease negative emotions and vivid memories associated with trauma.

Emotional wounds take far longer to heal than physical wounds. However, EMDR helps the mind heal from psychological trauma by changing the way a person views his or her experience. For example, a sexual assault victim may view the event as one of horror and disgust. However, EMDR helps change this attitude into one of “I am a survivor and I am okay.” By helping individuals to process these events and feelings, a person’s low self-esteem and hopelessness can be restored.

Healing From Trauma and Addiction

The first step to healing from both trauma and addiction is accepting it and talking about it. Many victims of trauma simply need to be heard. They need somebody to tell them that the trauma was not their fault. They need to be validated in order to deal. If trauma is left untreated in addiction treatment, a major disservice is done to the person suffering. Addiction often stems from underlying issues, with trauma being on the top of the list. When trauma is addressed, a person can truly begin to heal and put a lifetime of misery and addiction behind them.


Guest Writer Bio


Cassidy Webb is an avid writer in recovery from addiction. She works with JourneyPure to help spread awareness of substance abuse and co-occurring mental health disorders. Her passion in life is helping others recover by sharing her experience, strength, and hope.


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